Little Black Dress with Bonus Material (2 page)

BOOK: Little Black Dress with Bonus Material

I'm so sorry, Miss Ashton, but your mother's had a stroke, and she may never be the same again.

s much as I wanted to wake up, I couldn't do it.

Something had settled heavily upon my eyes, keeping them closed, and it weighed upon my body as well so that I could only lie immobile and without a voice to speak, a veritable lost soul.

Stranger still—though I was sure it was a trick of my addled mind—I suddenly felt as though I were swimming in the Mississippi River, something I hadn't done since I was thirteen, when my father took Anna and me to a rocky spot on the bank about midway between Blue Hills and Ste. Genevieve, and he told us to swim across to Mosquito Island and back. We were capable enough in the water, having spent several weeks each summer in a rental at the Lake of the Ozarks and the rest of the school break splashing around at the Blue Hills Social Club in its Olympic-sized pool.

But taking on the river was another beast entirely. How benign it could look when its muddy surface lay still as glass; so deceptively calm despite the angry undertow beneath. I'd heard tales of men twice my size getting swept away by the currents, sometimes never to be seen again. So performing this odd rite of passage of Daddy's had frightened me, even more, apparently, than my ten-year-old sister.

“It isn't that far,” Anna told me as we'd shivered in our bathing suits, looking out across the water, “you stick close, and I'll stay by you in case you need me.”

“All right,” I'd agreed.

Mud had sucked at my toes as I'd followed Anna, wading into the brown froth, hating the thought of putting my head beneath it. But when she pushed off and started to crawl, arm over arm, kicking and kicking, it gave me the courage I needed.

There were no boats around, nothing to hinder our path, and we made it across to the island's sandbar easily enough. It wasn't until we were halfway back that I felt something tug at my legs, a pull of tide below the surface that I couldn't see.

I tried kicking harder, but I went nowhere, and then it quickly began to push me away from my sister, moving me downstream.

“Evie, fight! You're stronger than you think!” Daddy shouted from across the way, waving his arms and clambering over the rocks so as not to lose sight of me.

But as hard as I swam, the current had me beat.

Please, don't let me die,
I thought before I saw my sister swimming toward me, moving steadily through the water, unafraid of being swept away, too.

“I'm here, Evie, I'm here!” I heard Anna's voice from somewhere near as I tried not to panic and keep my legs kicking, fighting the undertow and my worst fears.

And I wondered why she would want to save me when I hadn't tried to save her, when I'd been more concerned with raising a child than saving her sanity.

I was tired, so unbelievably tired.

Who would miss me if I left this world?
I thought sadly and stopped treading, letting my limbs pull me down like dead weight.

As I sank deeper into the cold, I sensed myself settling into a place of limbo, that near-death space I'd heard others babble about, although I'd never believed it existed. I flashed back on my life, the years rushing through my mind in bits and pieces. I saw faces and colors, heard voices and melodies, and suffered all the love and disappointment that had touched my heart since the day I was born.

What more could I possibly give?

For an instant, I pondered giving up, drifting along with the tide and letting go. I would see Jon on the other side, wouldn't I? And Mother and Daddy?

Then I thought of Antonia and Anna, of what I'd left unfinished and the things I'd done wrong and how I needed to right them, and I knew that it wasn't my time yet. That alone kept me from sinking deeper.

So I clung to them—to my daughter and my sister and the ghosts from the past—and I struggled against the darkness, treading the water somewhere between life and death.

t was ten o'clock by the time Toni exited the highway onto the rural route that curved and dipped toward Blue Hills, Missouri. A light dusting of white covered trees and houses, barns and fences. Even in the dark, it looked magical, as if she'd entered the world inside a snow globe. But the beauty of the winter night escaped her. Her stomach in knots, she headed straight for the hospital and rushed in, asking at the front desk for her mother.

“I'm Antonia, Evelyn Ashton's daughter,” she explained without catching her breath. “You called my cell just over an hour ago while I was still in St. Louis, and I drove like a bat out of hell to get down here. How could this have happened early in the morning, and you only phoned me then?”

Stern eyes softened. “I realize what a shock this is, ma'am,” said the nurse in blue scrubs and cornrows, “and I apologize for the delay in reaching you, but your mother hadn't updated her primary physician's contact list in years, and we couldn't find a living will. We eventually tracked down your number from her housekeeper.”

Had she just said “living will”? Wasn't that the paperwork designating whether or not to pull the plug?

Holy crap.

Toni felt woozy and grabbed the edge of the desk for support. “Can I see her?” she got out, her tongue thick and dry as cotton batting.

“Give me a moment, if you would.” The nurse picked up the phone and murmured into it briefly before hanging up to say, “Dr. Neville's just finished up his evening rounds. He'd like to speak with you if that's all right.”

“Yes, of course that's all right.” Toni jerked her head up and down like a bobblehead doll.

The woman got up from the desk, maneuvering around it. “If you'd please follow me . . .”

Toni all but stepped on her heels as they walked up a short hallway. She quickly found herself in a small office where the neurologist waited.

“Ms. Ashton, I'm very glad you're here.” Dr. Neville stood as she entered and indicated the chair opposite his desk. His craggy face looked unlined and youthful, but his fine blond hair cut marine-short was shot with enough gray to be vaguely reassuring.

“How's my mother? Will she be okay?” Toni asked in a rush, her fingers working the clasp on her bag, half of her wanting to blubber and the other half determined to stay composed as Evie surely would have if the shoe had been on the other foot. “What exactly happened? Do you know?”

The chair creaked as Neville leaned against it. “Mrs. Ashton was apparently alone when she had the stroke. Her housekeeper didn't find her for several hours, so she wasn't in great shape when she got here, but it could have been worse. Luckily, I was doing rounds, and we got her into surgery as soon as we could. But we won't know anything more for a while. She's in a drug-induced coma to allow her brain time to hibernate and heal. But rest assured, we're monitoring her cranial pressure and doing everything we can to keep her stable in the meantime. We don't want to lose her any more than you do.”

Hibernate and heal?
Toni wrinkled her forehead, thinking it sounded as though the doctor were describing how a bear dealt with the winter blues, not treatment for her mother's brain.

“How long?” she asked, hating the fear that she heard in her own voice. “How long until you bring her out?”

He rubbed tired-looking eyes. “Two or three days on the short side, I guess, but possibly a week.”

Had he just said “a week”?

Toni's chest compressed as she considered all the things on her schedule for the next few days and beyond: the consultations, menu tastings, meetings, fittings, and facing Greg after the proposal that never was. If she added another plate to the ones she juggled already, she'd surely drop something. But Toni knew that it couldn't be this.

“Why now?” she whispered, though she hadn't meant to say it aloud. It was a selfish thought, and she regretted it the instant she said it.

“Who knows?” The doctor shrugged slim shoulders, further rumpling his coat. “It's just one of those things nobody plans for,” he remarked, as if her question was real, not rhetorical.

When Toni didn't respond, he filled the silence with medical chitchat, explaining in layman's terms that Evie had experienced a cerebral hemorrhage, blood on her brain, and though the surgery seemed to have gone well, there was too much swelling still to know if it worked. When she came out of the coma—if she came out—she wouldn't be able to speak coherently, not at first, and he warned that she may never fully recover, even with rehabilitation.

Toni had the perverse need to laugh and tell him that wasn't possible. Evie Ashton had nerves of steel, a spine made of rebar, all those superhuman traits that few besides comic book heroes possessed. She couldn't imagine anything incapacitating her mother for long.

Except maybe a stroke and a drug-induced coma,
she thought. “If I talk to her, will she hear me?”

Dr. Neville raised his eyebrows. “It certainly can't hurt.”

“Okay then, I should do that.” Toni stood, gripping her purse like a life vest. “I want to see her now, if I may.”

“It's awfully late . . .”

“C'mon, doctor”—she hadn't driven down to Blue Hills like a bat out of hell on a winter's night for nothing—“give me two minutes, please.”

He sighed and held up his fingers in what looked like a peace sign. “You've got exactly two and then we're kicking you out.”


Toni's legs wobbled as she walked warily into ICU and glimpsed the thin, sheet-draped body in the bed, tubes and leads attaching her mother to machines that blipped and beeped all around her. With Evie's eyes closed, she appeared to be asleep and dreaming. Toni wished like hell she could pretend that's all it was.

Despite her determination to be tough, all grown-up and adult, she choked up. She was simply a child with a sick mom, and there was nothing that could've made her feel more helpless.

In an instant, she sank into the bedside chair and reached for Evie's hand, a pathetic-sounding, “Oh, Mama,” slipping out between trembling lips. “It's me, Antonia,” she said. “I'm here with you, okay? I'm back, and I'm not going to leave you, I promise.”

She would stay for as long as it took.

y granddad Joseph used to say that the women in our family either blew hot or cold. If they were serious and well-behaved, he swore that the blood of the German Morgans ran more fiercely through their veins. Granddad's father, Herman—a scary-looking fellow I knew only by his steely eyes and grizzled beard in old black-and-white photographs—had been a Morganthaler from Mosel and a vintner by trade. When he'd settled in Ste. Genevieve County, Missouri, he'd gobbled up a hundred acres of farmland for planting grapes and had put down permanent stakes.

“He could make anything grow,” Granddad had said proudly; except perhaps the Morganthaler name, which had been clipped in two upon Herman's entry into the United States. Purportedly, my great-grandfather had been none too pleased at the immigration officials who'd lopped off half his surname; but like a good German, he'd taken it with a stiff upper lip, something his descendants—particularly Granddad—seemed inordinately proud of. That explained why Joseph Morgan claimed anyone who didn't exhibit such evenness of keel (like his irascible bride, my grandmother Charlotte) was surely tainted by the blood of the high-strung McGillis clan.

“That woman's capable of scaring grown men and small children with a single scowl,” he'd professed to anyone who'd listen. And if there was one thing Granddad knew firsthand, it was how quickly McGillis blood could boil.

Grandma Charlotte commanded attention like an army general. Even on her deathbed, she could paralyze us with a single look. Despite a bent and frail body and a paper-thin voice, a hoarsely whispered, “Hush!” would invoke immediate silence. I used to stammer in her presence, an affliction that went away entirely once she'd passed.

Luckily, my mother had inherited the quiet demeanor of her German ancestors: stoic, sensible, and amenable to almost everything. I think I am much like her. What I longed for most was peace, not confrontation.

Despite sharing my genes, my younger sister, Anna, seemed my opposite in every way. Like Charlotte, she was small in stature with a larger-than-life personality, although Anna wasn't so much demanding as dramatic. When Anna smiled, it was as though the heavens opened up and the light of God Himself shined down. When she was sad or angry, there was no place so dark in the world. Our grandmother even took to calling her “Sarah Bernhardt” after the actress who'd been a theatrical sensation when Charlotte and Joseph had been courting. My grandmother showed me a photograph of Miss Bernhardt from an old theater bill, and I decided she looked very much like a grown-up version of Anna with her lush dark hair and dark eyebrows.

“Whatever part she played, she could make you believe anything,” Charlotte had assured me, and I couldn't help but think the same about Anna.

My sister had a fierce imagination, always spoke before thinking, and had dreams “bigger than her britches,” as Daddy used to say.

She loved to spin the globe in our father's study, putting a finger blindly on a spot when it stopped. “Tanzania! Oh, yes, I want to go there, Evie!” she'd squeal and then she'd talk about leaving Blue Hills and traveling the world, never lingering in one spot for more than a few weeks. “I'll die of boredom if I stay,” she'd confided, but I'd brushed it off, because that was so typically Anna. She had no boundaries and a penchant for exaggerating.

When Granddad's heart gave out, I was in the first grade, and my parents moved us from the tiny cottage in the wooded rear of the Morgan property into the stately Victorian to keep the widowed Charlotte company. Whether I liked it or not, our grandmother took a keen interest in Anna and me, Anna especially. She instructed Mother to dress us for afternoon tea on Sundays after church, and we had to wear white gloves and keep our hands neatly folded on the lace-edged napkin in our lap. We couldn't speak unless spoken to, so we mostly said, “thank you,” and, “please.” To Anna, it was a game, a chance to dress up in one of Mother's outrageous hats, but I could never wait for the hour to end. The only thing I liked about teatime with Charlotte was the Earl Grey she poured steaming hot from the pot.

When the weather was nice, my grandmother encouraged my father to bring us with him to the vineyards, which he would do on occasion, albeit reluctantly.

After directing my six-year-old self to “Watch your baby sister,” Daddy would go off to check the fermenting casks in the cellar while I tried to keep track of then three-year-old Anna. Even if Mother had dressed us in ironed pinafores with white socks and polished Mary Janes, Anna would take off through the dirt paths and run amok, disappearing among the thick vines and hiding so that neither I nor Daddy could find her when he was ready to leave for the day. Sometimes, in calmer moments when Anna felt inclined to behave, we would find a grassy spot and lie on our backs, staring up at clouds scuttling through the sky and calling out whatever animal shapes we saw in them.

“That's a bunny,” I'd say, or, “That one's a bear!”

Anna would shake her head, squinting fiercely. “No, Evie, it's a boa constrictor,” she'd assure me. “And that's a Burmese tiger over there.”

We never saw things the same way. Never.

How could two sisters be so different?
I had wondered so many times, only to convince myself it was just a matter of growing up. But even after we'd stumbled through puberty and entered our teens, we had little common ground but our roots.

For me, flaunting authority meant reading gothic romances by flashlight beneath my blankets after bedtime or feeding tidbits from dinner underneath the table to my grandmother's decrepit cocker spaniel, Elsie (who ended up outlasting Charlotte by a year). To Anna, rules were for breaking, and she ignored them entirely when it suited her. She had no patience for curfews, slipping out well after dark to meet God knows who—although I surmised it was some boy or another, since Anna had enough of them slobbering after her—only to return past midnight, often with twigs in her hair and mud on her heels. Frequently, she'd sneak into my room and slip into the covers beside me, as if desiring a witness to her crime.

“Where were you?” I'd whisper, unable to see her face as she yawned before answering, “Finding out who I am.”

I didn't understand what she'd meant.

“Why don't you just look in the mirror?” I had suggested, since it seemed a logical enough suggestion. But nothing Anna did was ever about logic so much as the intangible and amorphous.

“Oh, Evie, there's so much more to life than what we see on the surface,” she'd murmur and sigh, as if she knew everything and I was the baby. Then she'd close her eyes and doze until Mother came to wake us for school.

When Daddy caught her creeping up the elm and onto the second-floor porch before dawn the next weekend, he threatened to ground her for the rest of the school year and the summer as well. But Grandma Charlotte intervened—as she so often would—suggesting he give Anna more leeway.

“At least one of them has spunk,” she'd said with a sniff, and I could tell by my father's face that he didn't find that a good thing.

“I'll wager it was spunk that got Helen von Hagen in trouble when she was fifteen,” he'd replied, and my mother had looked suitably horrified.

Ultimately, Daddy had capitulated, and Anna had gotten off lightly: kitchen duty for a week, namely, peeling potatoes and scouring pots. Although within two days of her punishment, I noticed that Mother had taken over her tasks without a word to anyone. I wasn't sure my father knew (but I was sure that Grandma Charlotte did).

I had been tempted to rat on her but I didn't, torn as I was between loyalty to my father and to my only sibling. Still, I worried about Anna's inability to play by the rules and figured it never hurt anyone to learn that misbehavior had consequences. In the end, I kept quiet, sure that Anna would get her comeuppance someday without any help from me. Indeed, I didn't have long to wait.

After Charlotte joined our grandfather in the family plot, leaving Anna without her protector, I saw my sister get into trouble so deep she couldn't get out of it.

Perhaps if Anna had been more Morgan and less McGillis, she might not have succumbed to the magic of the dress. I wanted to believe it was the supernatural and not free will that caused her to throw away all the plans that Mother and Daddy had so meticulously sewn up for her, all the dreams they'd had for our family.

It was a while before I understood that the dress had given her the foresight to do what needed doing. But in the beginning, all I knew was that first night she wore it, Anna did something inconceivable, and the very next day she vanished.

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